Two Elegies on Black Girlhood
Reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, (forthcoming from Amistad this August), I was thrust back into the experience of girlhood. Through August, the novel’s narrator, Woodson captures the mixture of magic, anxiety, and desire that comes with adolescence. For her, it is especially fraught with the loss of her mother, her family’s inconsistent transition to Islam, and her father’s overprotective rules. August yearns to join the group of neighborhood girls, studying their movement, their dress, and their laughter. They represent a kind of freedom for her, that even once she finds and becomes connected to, is fleeting. This feeling is present throughout the whole book, leaving the reader in this lucid dream state that feels like memory.
Through my reading Another Brooklyn, I was constantly reminded of a memoir that shaped my perspective on what it meant to be a girl, and especially what it meant to be a black girl. Bone Black: Memoirs of Girlhood by bell hooks recounts the lessons she learned when she was young about race, beauty, womanhood, and responsibility. Her story is told in a non-linear way in brief chapters, as if to resemble flipping through her memory. As with Woodson, there is a hazy, beautiful way in which hooks reveals these moments.
Reading these books, the word elegy came to mind. Elegy is usually used to describe a poem about something sad or lost. It feels like an apt description for both Woodson’s and hooks’s work; narratives that move in and out of memories. These are both books that are concerned with the economy of language. The precise, poetic-like prose serves as both lullaby and warning. They whisper: this is the wonder of girlhood, hold close to your sisters. They whisper: there are always eyes on you, there always will be. They ask: what is it to be a woman, are we supposed to be afraid?
These books taught and affirmed my own experience of black girlhood as an experience of expectation. You need to be politer, and smarter, and more graceful. You need to mother. August constantly takes care of her brother and reassures him before she can comfort herself. As hooks describes, black girlhood is a constant warning from others to be quiet and stay still and be ready for those moments to come when you will lose your voice. Hooks has several moments of bearing witness to the silence of the women around her, wondering if that what it means to be a women; to make yourself smaller.
But these stories are not just about the negative messages they receive. Instead they also celebrate wonder and demonstrate the kinds of self-preservation/ self-care I needed to survive adolescence. Hooks found herself, and an escape, through books, as I did. These stories honor and celebrate the communities of black girls that hold each other up. I knew this, as August does, through circles of held hands and hair braiding, sing-alongs and sleepovers, and promises to protect each other from all the dangers out there.
These elegiac books provide necessary voice to the experience of black girlhood and the messages many of us receive, regardless of culture, about what awaits us.